Finding The Prodigal In Genesis 33


The story of The Prodigal Son still brings tears to my eyes when I read it. It is a powerful story in and of itself, and I also have so many memories of retreats and camps that retold the story of the Prodigal Son in beautiful ways. It makes sense that we retell the story, because it provides such a clear picture of God’s grace, forgiveness, and enduring love for us.

We find the story in Luke 15:11-32. We first meet a man with two sons, the younger of whom feels dissatisfied so he asks for his portion of his father’s blessing. He leaves his father’s home, spends all of his inheritance, and ultimately hires himself out to a farmer who has him care for his pigs. While the son is estranged and starving, he decides to return to his father, and offer himself as a hired servant. However, when the son is still a long way away, his father sees him, runs to him, embraces and kisses him, and throws a banquet to celebrate his return; “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24).

The story is so profound and moving, and for the longest time it seemed to me that we could only find a story with so much grace and forgiveness in the New Testament. But as I continue to learn time and time again, God demonstrated his love for us long before we arrive in Luke.

In Genesis 33 we meet Jacob, whose name recently became Israel after a wrestling match with God (see Gen. 32:24-32; feel free to leave questions about this in the comments section). Jacob knows that Esau is on his way to meet him, and as you can remember from our posts on their early relationship (see The Sacredness of Siblings and Birthrights and Blessings), Jacob fears that Esau will kill him.

Jacob responds two ways: first, he prays to God (Gen. 32:9-12) and he sends gifts ahead of him to meet Esau (Gen. 32:13-21). Jacob’s prayer is especially profound, and I believe it impacts the outcome of his encounter with Esau. He pleads, “I am not worthy of the least of all of the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Gen. 32:10).

Jacob humbles himself. He admits that he does not deserve the blessings that God has lavished upon him, and then he asks for God to deliver him from the hand of Esau. 

So then we arrive in Genesis 33, and Jacob sees Esau coming. I can only imagine that Jacob is shaking in his boots (or sandals), as he watches his brother lead four hundred men into his camp. Jacob approaches and bows to greet his brother, and in a turn of events that Jacob never could have imagined, he watches his brother run toward him and embrace him. Esau falls onto Jacob’s neck, kisses him, and they weep (Gen. 33:1-4). Esau demonstrates the forgiveness and grace that surpasses what Jacob could ever have hoped for.

When we look closely at the language here, we see that it’s the same language of forgiveness and grace  in that Jesus uses in the parable of The Prodigal Son. Genesis 33:4 states, “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Describing the prodigal son, Luke 15:20 states, “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

The Greek in the New Testament, and the Greek in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) are very similar here: we watch Esau and the father of the prodigal son, “run” (from the Greek root trecho), “kiss” (from phileo), and “fall on” (pipto) the “neck”  (trachselos) of Jacob and the son, respectively. The moment of redemption in The Prodigal Son echoes the same reconciling moment between Jacob and Esau. More specifically, Jesus draws directly from Genesis in order to relate his own parable. 

God wanted us to know his grace and forgiveness all along. He wanted us to accept that if we pray to him (as Jacob did), he can release and redeem us from even the most frightening of circumstances. God’s love surpasses our weaknesses and frailties, and God celebrates when we return home to one another, and home to Him. Jesus knew this as he told his story of the Prodigal Son; he recalled what he knew of God’s work through Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau and repackaged it for his own audience.

May we feel refreshed and empowered today by the redemptive love that God offered us first in Genesis and every day since. May we come home to one another, and home to the God who has always wanted us with Him, just as we are. And may we, at the end of the day, know that our identity is found, not in our wandering or fleeing, but safely beside the One who created us and loves us always.

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Birthrights and Blessings

In the last post, The Sacredness of Siblings, we looked at the relationship between Jacob and Esau, and how it changed after Jacob convinced his brother to hand over his birthright. Today we move ahead in the story and watch Rebekah and Jacob use deceptive means to claim Esau’s blessing as well.

In Genesis 27, we learn that Isaac had grown old and that he couldn’t see very well. Rebekah overhears him tell Esau to go hunt in the field and prepare him some food, and after eating he plans to give Esau his blessing. Rebekah then intervenes.

Rebekah shares what she heard with Jacob, and tells him to fetch her two goats. She turns them into a stew for Isaac, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and puts goat skins on Jacob’s arms to make them feel hairy and coarse like Esau’s (v. 5-17). They expend a lot of effort to deceive the elderly and blind Isaac.

Isaac maintains a high level of suspicion while Jacob stands before him. Isaac asks how Esau could have prepared the meal so quickly, questions why he has Jacob’s voice rather than Esau’s, and even sniffs him to see if he has the smell of Esau or Jacob. After doing his best to verify that it was indeed Esau, Isaac offers the blessing (v. 18-29). Shortly thereafter, the real Esau visits Isaac, and they all realize that Jacob had deceived them (v. 30-40).

So Jacob had already taken Esau’s birthright, and then he and his mom scheme to ensure that he gets the blessing as well. In the ancient world, these constituted two separate entities. The easiest way to explain it is that the birthright (bekorah) involved a one-time transfer of physical goods (i.e. when Isaac died, Jacob would take all of the inheritance).

The blessing (berakah), on the other hand, held even more power, because it determined what would take place perpetually in the future. Isaac tells Jacob, “May God give you the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Gen. 27:28-30). Those are powerful words that shape the fate of Jacob and his house.

When Esau learns that his brother has taken both his birthright and his blessing, he becomes infuriated. He begs his father to offer him some sort of blessing, but Isaac tells him that he already gave the full blessing to Jacob, and there is no way to retract it. Esau plans to kill Jacob, and when Rebekah learns of his plan, she sends Jacob to live with her brother, Laban, who will hide him until Esau calms down.

The amount of family discord taking place is shocking. With each move that Jacob and Rebekah make, the family falls further apart, ending with Esau’s intent to kill Jacob, and Rebekah’s sending Jacob away.

Jacob and Rebekah’s actions add up over time. They don’t commit one act that leads to all of this tension; rather, it’s the culmination of Jacob grabbing Esau’s heel during their birth, Jacob taking Esau’s birthright, and finally Jacob taking Esau’s blessing that brought the family to this place of discord. Each individual action brought about its own set of consequences, but when placed together they created enough strife to damage the family as a whole.

Our actions matter. Every choice that we make either creates more goodness, connection, and love in the world, or it creates the opposite. We need to be intentional about the choices we make, and know that they have a lasting impact on our own selves, the relationships that we hold sacred, and on the world as a whole. And in every circumstance, every choice, may we focus on how we can foster love over hate, understanding over ignorance, and charity over self-interest. Because in the end, our choices will determine what our lives look like, and to some extent, the type of world in which we live.

The Sacredness of Siblings

sibling

My brothers and sisters are some of the most encouraging and wonderful people in my life. I grew up with a brother, and when I was eight I got a sister; when my brother married, I got another sister, and in marrying my husband I gained two more brothers. That’s quite a network of siblings to turn to for wisdom, laughter, and strength. During childhood and adolescence, though, it can seem common for brothers and sisters to focus more on competition than the gifts they are to each other.

For example, this past weekend as we celebrated Mother’s Day, my mom shared a story about when I took the ACT test. Apparently, I studied really hard, and after I got the score I wanted, my brother celebrated, saying, “Great for her!” while I responded, “I beat his score!” Ouch. I’m not sure why I cared about beating his score, but regardless, it was not my best moment.

In the biblical text we see sibling rivalry all over the place. It makes a bit more sense in the biblical context, given that the eldest child typically inherited all of the father’s lands and goods, while the younger children received a single gift and may not even stay in the father’s land (see Genesis 25:1-6). Siblings had a lot on the line regarding their own wellbeing and security after the father died.

On numerous occasions, Genesis subverts the tradition of granting the birthright to the eldest son. Abraham gives his to Isaac, despite Ishmael being the eldest (Gen. 25:5), Jacob grants his to Joseph, rather than to Reuben or to any of his other sons (Gen. 49:22-26), and in the text we read today, Jacob takes the birthright from Esau. 

In Genesis 25:19-26, Isaac pleads to God on behalf of his barren wife, Rebekah, and she conceives twin boys. They struggle within her, and God explains that the two boys represent two nations, and that the eldest will eventually serve the youngest. When she births them, Esau emerges first, but Jacob grabs on to his heel (side note: Jacob’s name, yacov, actually means “heel holder”).

We learn that as they grow up, Esau is a hunter, and Jacob stays in the home. One day, as Jacob is cooking a lentil stew, Esau enters the home and asks for some of the stew. He states that he is so hungry he is at the point of death (v. 32). So Jacob uses Esau’s hunger and weakness to convince him to sell Jacob his birthright for the bowl of stew.

Reading sarcasm into the biblical text gets tricky, so I’ll just lay out the two options: either Esau really was at the point of famine in which he would die, and Jacob chose to withhold the stew from his dying brother until he attained the birthright. Or, Esau was acting like a child who says, “I’m starving!” to simply express that he was hungry. Either way, Jacob turns the tables by offering Esau stew in exchange for the promise of his birthright. And in doing that, he chooses to damage his relationship with his brother.

I know that not all families are like mine. I have been blessed with great relationships with all of my siblings. Yet in other families, sibling relations are often one of the biggest points of tension. Differing beliefs, lifestyles, locations, and a whole host of other factors can create dissonance and difficulty between siblings and within families. But as we see in the text today, we make choices to either assuage those differences or to escalate and perpetuate them to their greatest extent.

God has given us siblings as a blessing, and we are meant to feel gratitude for them. If you have a great relationship with your siblings, give thanks for them today, and let them know how much you care. If you have a more complicated or difficult relationship with your siblings, consider one thing you can do today to make your relationship just a bit happier and healthier than it was yesterday. In either scenario, we can be a voice of love and encouragement in the sacred relationships of siblinghood.